Too often in histories, the achievements of African-Americans are overlooked, and their success stories are untold or understated.
To be sure, African-American history is filled with accounts of discrimination, and African-Americans endured numerous legal restrictions during and after slavery. Even free blacks during the colonial and antebellum era, in the North and in the South, were considered second-class citizens. When those experiences are omitted, a far too rosy picture is painted and the past is misrepresented.
But there's another deficiency in many recent histories that ignore how more than a few African-Americans found a way to prosper even during difficult times. African-Americans often were agents of change, even within a repressive environment.
Those stories often are unheard, and those particular lessons from the past are unstudied. Two good historical questions to ask, then, are how black entrepreneurs and property holders found niches of liberty within an oppressive system, and what we can learn from their experiences.
Historians have called the Jim Crow era (1890-1950) the nadir of American race relations. It was an age predominantly of de jure segregation in the South and de facto segregation in the North. Even so, some African-Americans accumulated significant wealth and owned sizable estates. One 1990 history, Black Property Owners in the South, 1870-1915, compiles the records of 241 prosperous black property holders -- those with total estate wealth exceeding $20,000.
In today's terms, those 20,000 1870 dollars would be worth about $340,000. A $20,000 estate in 1910 would equal to $462,000 today.
Among the 241 prosperous blacks in the study, 66 accumulated more than $100,000 in wealth. In 1870, a $100,000 estate would be $1,702,786 in today's terms after considering inflation. A 1910 estate worth $100,000 would be valued in today's terms at $2,310,263.
There were others who earned less yet still serve as examples of entrepreneurial drive and success. Their stories are worth telling.
One was Willis Hinton of High Point. Hinton was born in 1840 and had been a slave for 25 years before becoming a free man. A farm hand, Hinton moved to High Point in 1868 to lay track for the North Carolina Railroad. Hinton embarked on an entrepreneurial career in 1883 and opened a cafe. Five years later, he sold the cafe to open the Hinton Hotel, an 11-room establishment that he owned and operated until he died in 1924.
Ashley W. Smith (1850?-1928) of Smithfield is another example. Like Willis Hinton, Smith was illiterate, but he embodied the values of thrift and hard work and evinced an entrepreneurial spirit. After the Civil War, Smith worked hard, saved his money, and eventually purchased his town lot. He later bought a small farm outside of Smithfield. By 1885, 20 years after the Civil War, he owned 36 acres and three town lots. He had office buildings constructed on these lots during the late 1880s and early 1890s.
For his "pluck, energy, perseverance,and close application to business," he was respected in the community and served on the Board of Town Commissioners in the 1890s.
Smith's life provides an example of what a freed black could accomplish in a small town during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Despite these difficulties, entrepreneurs like Hinton and Smith overcame a disadvantaged past and exhibited ambition combined with thrift and a sound work ethic. They ran respected businesses when African-Americans struggled for respect and participated in a free market in which each held his own.
One wonders how much wealth and how many jobs these former slaves-turned-entrepreneurs might have created had they been able to participate fully in a free economy.
Dr. Troy Kickler is director of the North Carolina History Project (northcarolinahistory.org).